Cover Story

Small changes, big results

Every little nook has great potential

Bedroom makeover (Globe photo / Shelly Harrison ) A small corner of a bedroom went from a somewhat useless space with a chair to a lovely dressing room and closet.
By Jaci Conry
Globe Correspondent / January 13, 2011

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These days, more homeowners are maximizing their living space with a little creativity. They don’t want to move, so they’re transforming underused areas of their homes to create more functional and attractive spaces often without adding any additional square footage. Not only are they enhancing their personal havens, they’re adding value to their homes — the ultimate win-win.


As is the case with many older homes, the closets in this 1870s Shingle Style house in Cambridge were sorely lacking. Home to a growing family, the house had a modest master bedroom with one small closet.

“You see all these new houses now with his and her walk-in closets,’’ says Cambridge-based Charlie Allen, the contractor on the project and an expert in old-house restoration. “Forget that. This house barely had a basic his closet.’’

The bedroom was in dire need of a substantial closet but it wasn’t an option to add on to the home’s footprint or reconfigure the bedroom. However, the room did have a turret with gracious rounded windows that the homeowners had used as an area for a comfortable chair.

“We realized that the only place we could put a closet was in the turret. However, the turret is such a special aspect of the house, we didn’t want to ruin it in the process,’’ says Allen.

Since it was essential that the windows remained intact, Allen’s storage solution was to design custom cabinetry that fit between and underneath the windows in the rounded space. Tall cabinets between the windows provide area for hanging items and lower cabinets open to reveal drawers for folded clothing. The moldings and trim from the bedroom were incorporated into the renovated turret to make the cabinetry appear as though it has always been there.

“At slightly less than 100 square feet, the turret is good-sized and there’s room for a lot of clothes in there,’’ says Allen, who feels the beauty of the turret is that it serves more than one purpose: it’s also used as a dressing area.

Windows, which were restored to their original condition during the renovation, are sheathed with a film that enables one to look out but people can’t see in. Bench seats were created at the base of all three windows to provide a perch for relaxing.

“I think it’s really neat that the area stores clothes 24/7 and also has a warm connection to the outdoors,’’ says Allen. “It’s a cozy nook, a dressing room, and a closet all at the same time and that has tremendous value.’’


Margaret Steele’s Gothic-Revival style house in Edgartown was charming and historic. But the home, built in 1860, was cramped, with four small bedrooms on the second floor.

“One bedroom was particularly bad,’’ says Salem-based architect Katie Hutchison, who is Steele’s daughter in-law. “Crammed under the eaves, my husband couldn’t stand up straight in some spots in the room.’’ It was also very dark with just one small window. It was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter.

Hutchison saw a way to enhance the space rather simply, by creating a shed dormer.

“Older houses tend to have wasted space under their roofs, sloping ceilings, and limited natural light and ventilation. Adding a dormer addresses all of these shortcomings,’’ says Hutchison. “With a long simple roof, a shed dormer adds the most floor space and more opportunities for windows than other dormer types.’’

The new dormer is nested in the primary roof and fitted with casement windows to match an existing dormer, so it looks as if they were built concurrently. The shed dormer greatly improved the bedroom: there’s increased headroom, daylight, and ventilation.

The dormer also eliminated the sloped ceiling on the other side of the wall, which allowed for the master bedroom closet to be dramatically improved.

“Before, you couldn’t hang clothes in the closet, it was awkward storage space. The new dormer allowed for the ceiling to be raised to full height, so now it’s a normal, much more usable closet,’’ says Hutchison.

The architect points out that you never know what you’re going to uncover when you do renovations in an old house. Here, there was a huge timber beam in the spot where she wanted to put the window. Rather than be deterred, Hutchison incorporated it as a design element. “We situated the window so we could incorporate the beam into the sill. As a result, the window has an extra deep sill that’s a perfect spot for a book or flowers. It’s lovely.’’


Alexis Smith adored nearly everything about the Brookline condominium she and her husband, Trevor, bought last November. “The building, built in 1905, is gorgeous: It’s French, Gothic Revival, and Rococo all in one,’’ says Smith. “The interior has beautiful details and moldings.’’

What they didn’t love was that their 1,400-square-foot unit had just one bathroom. So they decided to turn a closet in the master bedroom into one. Luckily, the master had two closets — in another life the room had been a dining room — and the closet that Smith chose to convert was originally a pantry.

A contractor did all of the labor including the plumbing and electrical work, which turned out to be rather complex due to the building’s age. “Our contractor said it was the biggest small job he’s ever done,’’ says Smith, who made all of the design decisions for the tiny bathroom, which measures just three by seven feet. Smith spent months searching for fixtures that were both compact and stylish.

“We had to have a wall-hung sink, and finding one that doesn’t look like a water fountain was a challenge,’’ says Smith, who selected an ultra-petite Kohler model.

Through research on how to make small bathrooms feel more spacious, Smith learned one trick was to keep color neutral. She selected square white marble for the floors and used the same material in hexagon tiles for the floor of the stall shower. The bathroom walls are clad with glossy white subway tile. To introduce a little color Smith had pale green marble pencil molding installed halfway up the shower walls, along with much needed corner shelves.

One of the challenges Smith faced was how to create adequate storage. Fortunately, it was possible to install a good-size medicine cabinet above the sink. A bonus was that the wall had been a doorway when the room was used as a pantry, so it was possible to recess the traditional white cabinet from Restoration Hardware for a bit of extra space.

On the wall next to it, there was area enough to install glass shelves for more storage. Another bonus was that the closet had a window, so while the bathroom is small, it is bathed in natural light.

“It was a daunting project at first because it was such a small space,’’ says Smith. “But I’m so proud of the bathroom. It was a very fulfilling project, and our place feels so much bigger now.’’